Saturday, December 30, 2006

Coming in 2007

“Jailhouse Conversion” (NYT Magazine)
By Chris Suellentrop (writes the Opinionator blog for The New York Times on the Web. This is his first article for the magazine.) (published Dec. 24.) Even if it a bit old it is not stale by any means, but forward looking. These are Chris's words, because I could not improve on them as far as it goes. My apologies for not posting yesterday but I just could not find the time.

Perhaps most remarkably, the outgoing Republican-controlled Congress came tantalizingly close to passing the Second Chance Act, a bill that focuses not on how to “lock them up” but on how to let them out. The bill may become law soon, if Democrats continue to welcome the new conservative interest in rehabilitation.
the Second Chance Act is a small bill. It authorizes less than $100 million over two years to address a significant problem: about 700,000 ex-offenders (the population of a good-size American city) will leave prison in 2007 — and two-thirds of them are likely to be rearrested within three years. The bill would provide states with grants to develop model programs for prisoners returning to society. Those states that accept the grants will be asked to re-examine any laws and regulations that make it unreasonably difficult for ex-offenders to reintegrate themselves into their communities — the classic example is the ban on allowing felons to receive a barber’s license. (If the felon in question is Sweeney Todd, of course, the ban might make sense. But a blanket prohibition that includes check bouncers and marijuana users seems overly broad.) The bill also provides money to faith-based organizations and other nonprofits for prisoner-mentoring programs. Finally, it requires states to measure how well their programs achieve the bill’s main goal: reducing the rate of recidivism among recently released prisoners.
as a symbolic political gesture, the Second Chance Act completely reverses recent practice. For the first time in decades, Congress is poised to pass a bill that aims to make the lives of prisoners and ex-prisoners easier, not more difficult. In the 1990s, Democratic and Republican Congresses scrapped the Pell Grant program for prisoners, barred drug offenders from receiving federal student loans and cut highway money for states that did not revoke or suspend the driver’s licenses of drug felons. Now leading politicians of both parties are proposing that states remove laws and regulations that wall off the ex-criminal class from the community. Rather than eliminating education and substance-abuse treatment programs, Congress may well finance them. When I met with Mark Earley, a former political star of the Christian right and a present-day prison reformer, I began explaining to him why I was surprised by the Second Chance Act and the so-called “re-entry movement” surrounding it. He knew why I was surprised: “First of all,” he said, by the very fact “that there is common ground” between Republicans and Democrats. “And second of all, it’s this?”

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